Eamonnmallie.com is delighted to welcome one of Ireland’s foremost pop-artists, Robert Ballagh, as a contributor. Ballagh, a controversialist, is also a keen observer and writer on Irish affairs.
At a time of huge turbulence in the euro, with a question mark over it’s very survival – I thought it prudent to revisit the following article by Ballagh on his thoughts, as he bade farewell to many of the banknotes that he originally designed.
This following exposition (including images by Ballagh) was published on December 30, 2001 in ‘Ireland on Sunday’, on the eve of the introduction of the euro:
Why I mourn for our ould money
So, after years of talking and many months of being softened up with a barrage of cheery advertising, the euro is finally upon us.
In just two days’ time, perhaps even as the midnight bells still echo in your ears, the new notes will be thrust into your hands. Never on January 1, will the phrase “out with the old, in with the new” have seemed so pregnant with meaning.
Yet, amid all the official enthusiasm for this bold new economic project, I am sure I am not the only one who feels more than a twinge of apprehension.
To be more specific, I am dismayed that in spite of acres of newsprint, hours of talk on the radio and TV and £millions spent on information dealing with the introduction of the euro, I have seen nothing of consequence covering the cultural significance of this momentous change.
There are many who will argue that joining the euro will make us richer. Well perhaps, if everything goes according to plan, we will be materially richer but culturally, I believe, we will be poorer.
Tuesday will be the day on which we see, not just the last of the current banknotes, but the closure of a vibrant cultural history which lasted almost 80 years.
No more will we be able to express our difference, our independence, our pride in our history and culture and the important fact that we have our own language through the utilisation of a potent symbol of national identity, namely, the ubiquitous banknote.
Instead, we will have banknotes which, by their very nature, will be unable to refer to any specific person, object or place.
Yet everything said so far has had to do with the economic impact of the impending changeover, from punt to euro. We have been lectured, like schoolchildren, about how simple the conversion will be.
We have been given idiot-proof euro calculators and encouraged to buy “starter packs” of euro coins in order to practise with the new currency, as if (after a bumper Christmas buying binge and with the shops besieged by bargain hunters) we need any lessons on how to spend money.
Irish people have been travelling abroad on holidays for decades and nobody ever recommended classes so that would-be vacationers could be trained to order beer in pesetas, lira or francs. I’ve no doubt that changing from one currency to another is something that most people can cope with easily and quite quickly.
The “rip-off” factor is another thing and sadly there will be those who will take advantage of the change, just as they did when decimalisation was introduced. However, human nature being what it is, most people will be caught out – but only the once.
However: I am convinced the big surprised on New Year’s Day for most Irish people, will not be that their five euro note will be worth just under four punts, rather that the new notes will have no reference whatsoever to Ireland.
I say this with some certainty, since practically every person who has raised the subject of the new euro notes with me has expressed some comfort in the erroneous belief that the reverse side of the new notes will contain some Irish element.
I have to say I find it amazing that, in spite of £millions spent on educating the Irish about the euro, so many still cling to the notion that the new euro notes will contain some symbol of national identity.
I myself learned of this absence some time ago when I was invited to submit designs for the proposed new euro.
On reading the briefing document from the European Monetary Institute, I immediately noted with some apprehension that one of the regulations stated that any designs submitted could exhibit no national or gender bias.
On further inquiry, my apprehension was confirmed. For example, Beethoven’s suitability as a subject was rejected because he was a German and therefore his selection would demonstrate a national bias. Shakespeare, likewise, would be deemed English, and so on.
The fact that I and many others would argue that artists like Beethoven and Shakespeare transcend their individual nationality and represent the crowning pinnacle of European cultural achievement, was irrelevant in the context of the design brief.
No doubt the eurocrats who devised the original briefing document hoped to encourage the creation of designs that would offend no one, without recognising the danger that in producing notes that no one could dislike, they also ran the risk of churning out money nobody would love.
Iv’e already heard a few critical voices saying the new euro notes look quite bland. However, spare some sympathy for the designer.
In choosing his safety-first approach, he could not use any past or present buildings because this would exhibit a national bias.
For example, Amiens Cathedral would be deemed as French and the Parthenon as Greek, consequently all the illustrated elements on the notes had to be made up of invented architecture from some imaginary “Euthopia”.
The difficulty of such a task is shown by the fact that when some assiduous English journalist thought he recognised a real bridge on one of the original designs, it had to be changed.
Thus far, I have described in some detail what we will be getting when we change from punt to euro.
But it’s only right and proper we should take some time to reflect on what will be lost.
Our loss will be quite complex . Some elements of it will appear quickly and and be quite obvious, while others will be less obvious and will take time to develop.
Undoubtedly, the loss of our own currency marks a loss of sovereignty and further loss of control over our economic destiny.
This is an important economic issue and the debate over the pros and cons of our decision to join the euro will be played out in the coming years as we watch the fortunes of the euro project. However, since I’m not an economist, I’ll leave that debate to others.
As an artist, however, I am concerned by another loss, one that will be immediately obvious.
Since the earliest years of recorded human history, coins have been used by states to express their sovereignty, and Ireland has been no exception.
The Irish pound may have remained linked in value to sterling until 1979, but the importance of pure symbolism was not lost on the founding fathers of our State, who moved quickly to ensure the populace did not have to keep carrying around the British monarch’s head in their pockets longer than was absolutely necessary.
Ever since, we have quite deliberately used both bank notes and coins to assert our independence and to define our national identity. The task of selecting and issuing the designs has always been approached in a most serious manner.
Incidentally, if you wish to see for yourself the dedication and cultural richness that lie behind our bank notes, I would heartily recommend a visit to the beautifully presented Airgead exhibition currently on (with poignant timing) in the National Museum of Ireland at Collins Barracks.
The Cumann na nGael government first established the current commission in 1928 under the chairmanship of WB Yeats, and it produced the widely admired coinage featuring animal designs by Percy Metcalfe and the bank notes which featured John Lavery’s portrait of his wife Hazel on the front and the sculpted heads of the river gods from the Custom House on the reverse of the note.
These were referred to as the “A” series of bank notes. In 1976, the Central Bank of Ireland issued the “B” series. These notes were designed by a team which included artist Patrick Hickey and architect Richard Hurley. The notes featured portraits of Irish historical figures and the back-grounds and the reverse of the notes featured relevant graphic representations of Irish manuscripts, maps and symbols.
In 1992, the Central Bank issued the first in the “C” series of bank notes and this is where I enter the story. Because of the development of sophisticated printing technology and the access by forgers to this technology, the Central Bank decided to commission a new series of bank notes which would employ the latest security features.
The theme for this new series was to be centred on prominent historical Irish people who contributed to the formation of modern Ireland. The Central Bank sought advice from experts as to who should feature on the notes and also sought advice about artists and designers from the Arts Council.
I was one of a dozen or so who were invited to submit a design for a new £20 note featuring Daniel O’Connell. To my great surprise, I was selected by an independent panel to work with the Central Bank to produce a new £20 note based on my design. Thus began a great design adventure which saw the production of five bank notes over a period of four years. The design of each note involved approximately six months’ work and all the work was done by hand.
This was a stark contrast, by the way, to the euro project, when I had to produce 14 designs in just six months.
Over the years, I developed an excellent working relationship with the people in the Central Bank. It represented collaboration in the best sense of the word.
I have to admit that I was delighted that my designs were fairly well received by the Irish people and considering the public nature of the work, stimulated little controversy. In fact, the issues that I was most criticised for were unusually out of my control.
There were questions like: “Why did you make the fiver so small?” and “Why did you choose the people featured on the notes and not others?”
That may partly have been because, very early on in my relationship with the Central Bank, I was cautioned against attempting to slip any hidden messages into the designs that might surface later: I guess my predilection for humour and visual puns as an artist had preceded me.
Consequently, every proposed graphic element for each note was discussed and debated before the final artwork began.
Even so, I have to say I was surprised that the the pledge signed by Daniel O’Connell, calling for the repeal of the Act of Union (a union which caused great damage to Ireland) survived the design process to appear on the back of the current £20 note.
Now, 200 years after O’Connell, these notes are to be shredded as we join another monetary union, one which may lead to closer political union.
Let’s just hope we have better luck this time round.